Problem: Accounts conflict on the speed a fig tree dies
Verses: Matthew 21:18-20, Mark 11:19-21; Status: Serious

According to both Matthew and Mark, Jesus once cursed a fig tree. The accounts differ over whether it died immediately. Here's Matthew 21:18-20:

In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" (ESV)

And here's Mark 11:12-14, and 11:19-21:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it. (ESV)
And when evening came they went out of the city. As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered." (ESV)

The natural reading of Matthew is that the fig tree withered there and then, right in front of them. What else does "at once" mean? Yet Mark says the disciples only see that the tree has withered a day later. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Matthew is altering the story to make Jesus seem more powerful.

Failed solutions

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry suggests (among other explanations) that the fig tree showed immediate signs of withering (which the disciples in Matthew saw), but had only completely withered by the time the disciples saw it again the next day (in Mark). Yet this ignores the context of the verses. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus uses the withered fig tree to explain that all things are possible through faith. This makes it fairly clear that there was only one occasion on which the disciples noted the withered tree. Matthew and Mark are both talking about that occasion.

Looking Unto Jesus and Tektonics both suggest that the tree died at once but the disciples only noticed it the next day. This doesn't work at all, since the disciples in Matthew say "How did the fig tree wither at once?" indicating they saw it immediately.

The NIV strikes back

The New International Version translates Matthew 21:18-20 as follows:

Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked. (NIV)

You see how this opens up the possibility that the disciples saw the withered tree later, rather than immediately. However, I have looked up the actual Greek text, and the word which the ESV translates as "at once" is exactly the same in both verses: parachrema. So the NIV's translation is suspect - they translate parachrema as "immediately" the first time, but "quickly" the second time.

The Resurgence Greek Project agrees with the ESV that the correct translation is something like "on the spot, forthwith, straight away" (you can mouse-over Greek words on that website to see the translation).

(To be fair, the dubious translation isn't unique to the NIV, and might simply be an attempt by the translators to avoid the clumsy but accurate translation "How did the fig tree wither at once?" which sounds a bit odd in English.)

Updated: 2008-06-02

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